Before the final round of the regular Major League Rugby season, it was both surprising and superb to see the prime minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, wish the Toronto Arrows well.
“The past year has been a difficult one for you,” Trudeau said. “The pandemic has forced you to play outside of Canada for the entire season. You’ve had to live in hotels away from your families [and] friends, had to play your home games without your fans cheering you on.
“But … you’ve shown incredible strength, character and resilience. Every time you’ve hit the field, you’ve represented Canada with pride. [To] the staff and players, know that although you’re not here with us, Canada is with you, cheering you on as you wrap up the season.”
The Arrows finished last in the East but still won five times out of Atlanta. They made it through, well-placed to build next year.
Trudeau’s words put me in mind of two pieces I wrote a few years ago, about powerful Americans you might not know loved rugby. The stories ran the gamut from George W Bush and Bill Clinton, who played at college, to Mark Cuban and HR McMaster, power-players of different sorts in pro sports and in the army and the White House.
I missed a few. One was Gina Raimondo, then the first woman to be governor of Rhode Island, who in her own words “played rugby at Harvard, which I like to joke was good training for a career in politics!”
Raimondo is now commerce secretary in the Biden administration. Her boss was my biggest omission.
Did Joe Biden play rugby? He has said he did.
In July 2016, as vice-president, Biden visited New Zealand. There to greet him were two All Black forwards, the prop Charlie Faumuina and the great flanker Jerome Kaino, who as it happens was born in American Samoa and so could have been an Eagle. (Yes he could, it’s true.)
“I do not want to offend any of you,” Biden said to his hosts, “but this is the reason I came.”
Turning to Kaino, he shook hands and said “How are you man? Good to see you. I played rugby but thank God I didn’t play against these guys.”
Holding an All Blacks shirt with “Biden 15” on the back, Kaino said: “We heard you were a full-back in your day.”
“That’s right,” Biden said. “Put me in, coach, I’m ready to play! I tell you what, I don’t want to exaggerate my rugby career. I played rugby for one year when I was in law school. I played college football and high-school football but rugby only for a year. But thank you very, very much.”
Bringing Faumuina and Kaino in for a picture, he said: “Come on in, guys. Come in like you’re protecting me.”
Which they did.
I’ve long wanted to know more. Then Trudeau’s words brought Biden and rugby back to the front of my mind. So I emailed the White House.
It did not reply. So I did the next best thing, and dived into Google. What I found doesn’t make me Bob Woodward. It doesn’t even make me Clive. But here goes.
The Syracuse University Rugby Alumni Association has a fine website, its history section full of stories including the one about “the year we let an Iranian order the tournament t-shirts”. It doesn’t mention Biden. I emailed a query. Answer came there none. I ploughed on. The Syracuse rugby club, the Hammerheads, formed in 1969. Biden graduated from the College of Law in 1968.
Of course, Biden could’ve played informally, or for a club – the Syracuse Rogues, maybe, or even the Rochester Aardvarks or the Albany Knickerbockers. However, according to the New Zealand Herald, when Biden met the two All Blacks in 2016 he “said he played rugby for a year in the mid-70s and remembered watching the All Blacks ‘wreak havoc’ against Ireland”.
The line about watching a game doesn’t help pin anything down. Until recently, the All Blacks almost always wreaked havoc against Ireland.
Biden became a senator from Delaware in 1973, aged just 29. I’m not aware of a Senate Select XV gracing the rugby field on the National Mall in the years that followed – but until I wrote those two pieces in 2018, I wasn’t aware that Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, lion of senatorial lions, played the game at Harvard. Nor did I include the fact that James Baker, The Man Who Ran Washington for a succession of Republican presidents, played at Princeton too.
So far, so clear as mud. But it’s clearer – as clear as blood, even – that Biden does have a very strong link to and liking for rugby. He’s a distant cousin of the great Ireland full-back Rob Kearney and his brother Dave, an international wing.
In 2016, not long after his trip to Auckland, Biden congratulated Ireland on an epic win over New Zealand in Chicago, the first time the Irish beat the All Blacks. Rob Kearney explained it to Ireland AM.
“It started off as quite loose and a weird connection and then Joe came to Ireland on a state visit and myself and Dave met him and then he invited the two of us over to the White House. We went over in the summer and met him there, and the relationship has gone from strength to strength.”
The Kearneys were photographed with Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Biden and the VP’s grandson.
“It was pretty cool,” Rob Kearney said. “I spoke to him after the game and he had watched it. He’s actually a pretty big rugby fan.”
That at least seems clear. So if the White House ever gets back to me about the president’s days at full-back, I’ll slip in an extra question. When we know the MLR champions, two weeks from now, will he invite them to the White House – or record a message like Trudeau?